Social networks are shrouded in mystery. Just their very existence defies the laws of physics. If it were the late 40′s men in strange suits would be trying to dissect them at some top secret facility, but we have come so far since then Even though this sounds ridiculous, this is what many would have you believe about social networks. Why you ask? Because many of the people that talk about attacks and the dangers of social networks don’t even use them. They make all kinds of assumptions about soc nets that are completely false. The funny thing about assumptions when you are theorizing attacks is if your assumptions are faulty then your conclusions are faulty. Let’s cut the crap and focus on the real threats to social networks and their users.
Bruce Schneier just had a post in his blog about Social Networking Identity Theft Scams. In this blog post he refers to an article on ITworld titled Why you can’t trust ‘friends’ on Facebook as clever. This isn’t clever, this is dumb and extremely improbable. This is a perfect example of people talking about social networks that have no idea how they are used. The explanation of the scenario shows a clear lack of understanding of how social network users view and interact with their network.
I will not go in to all the specifics of what they were talking about, but it is based on the premise that you view your social network “friends” as you view your friends and family from the non-web world. Now, it’s possible and even likely that you may meet someone on a social network and actually become friends with them. This may even be part of the appeal for someone participating in a social network. The problem for an attacker is cultivating a true friendship takes time, effort, and resources. Attackers and scammers are all about effort vs reward. They are not going to take 6 months to a year of effort to try and scam someone out of 100 dollars.
Some other faulty logic they used is blurring the lines between the topic they were talking about and the Nigerian scam where they compromised peoples actual accounts. They then sent messages to their friends saying they were stuck in Nigeria and needed money. Still dumb, but this is a compromise of an already established social network presence. A far greater difference than a friend of a friend that you don’t know asking for money. You can see more information about that here. True they both ask for money, but the scenarios are far different.
Now This is Nasty
If you want to talk about dangerous, during the talk Shawn Moyer and I did at Black Hat and Defcon last year and even our ShmooCon talk this year I mention a concept that involved attacking innocuous functions. On certain social networks this would allow you to semi-hijack a person’s social network identity. The concept deals with blocking communication and creating a denial of service condition for all visitors to someone’s social network profile. You could then create a new, duplicate identity with the user’s information and try to re-friend previous friends. In the message you tell them something went wrong with your account and you had to create a new one.
This is far more dangerous than the scenario that the article goes in to. It’s much easier than trying to compromise someone’s account, you are able to disrupt normal communications between friends, and you are able to potentially hijack already established trust. An attacker could then run a scam under this identity giving them a higher percentage of success.
Social Networks and Safety
I am the last one to say that social networks are safe, for example see here and here. I just can’t stand bad information and fear mongering. Yes, fear mongering. “The child molesters are going to get your kids on the social networks”. Yuck! In a comment on his own blog post Bruce said,
“I’ve seen some of my friends on Facebook put their address and phone number on their information page. Anyone they add can see it, and one such person I know has well over 1,000 friends. Not a good combination with videos of his two small children posted.”
Why is that not a good combination. You can’t possibly believe that 0.1% of the Facebook population are child predators?
Now it’s true that some people do put far too much information on their pages. This is due to the fact that it is not clear to them what is really sensitive.
A Note To Parents
Child predators are not trolling social networks (with any significance) trying to molest your kids. Child predators are opportunistic just like other types of attackers. They are not going to see an address on a social network and pay the house a visit. There are just too many variables for the predator to deal with. Parents, guns, neighbors, witnesses, geographic locations, and many other factors make this a prohibitive method for them to use.
Now as far as them using social networks to try and contact your kids there are many factors there as well. Social networks do monitor their network. Some networks are better at it than others, but there is the monitoring factor. Not to mention the person would have to spend quite a bit of time creating a relationship with your kids, which leaves them at risk for being found out by parents. I mean hopefully your kids don’t just go off to meet with strangers. If that is the case then you have much larger problems.
As parents you have control over the internet connection and your kids usage of the Internet. Know who they are talking to and what their activities online are. Remember your being curious not paranoid. You get paranoid over things you have no control over, these are your kids Know who they talk to and who their friends are. After all, a predator is going to try to get them alone and away from parents.
There is always the rare case that is the exception to the rule. Things happen and there are people who are just nuts and don’t think logically. People have been watching too much To Catch A Predator and think that the world is crawling with child molesters. Common sense should be your guide not a television show that is trying to get ratings. Besides in that show they had people posing as teens in an adult chat rooms, not social networks. Which just goes more to the point that I made about these individuals being opportunistic.
If you want more proof about the social network threats to kids being overblown you can read more about it from the New York Times here.
The Thief Scenario
Having your address on your soc net page and then a message saying, “On vacation out of the country” seems like (and really is) a stupid thing to do. Let’s look at it closer from the viewpoint of a thief. There are many variables here as well that still wouldn’t make this feasible. What about alarms, house sitters, family, neighbors, etc. This is on top of the information gathering activities that a thief would have to do prior to targeting someone anyway.
Now what is much more likely that attacker would target someone and augment their activities with information they find on social networks. These sort of targeted, personal information gathering activities can be pretty dangerous, but still not very realistic from a thief’s perspective. Thieves are opportunistic as well. What would change the scale is if you had known assets that someone REALLY wanted. This would warrant the time put in to the information gathering activities. Even in these scenarios the information from social networks only helps, the person would most likely be targeted anyway. There are rare exceptions, but just trying to put this in to perspective.
There are aspects that make social network ripe targets for attack. They are a large collecting point for users. They are made up of mostly user generated content, many allow extensions and 3rd party applications. Any large collecting point of users is going to be looked at by an attacker. These are just the facts, but when discussing dangers and threats we need to look at them in terms of real risk. When we raise the danger flag for things that aren’t necessarily a risk we may draw attention away from things that really are a danger.
I particularly enjoy the individuals who say that they would never join a social network or communicate with people who do. As if people that use social networks somehow don’t know something that they do. I turn that around, why not use social networks? Are you socially inept and not able to communicate with your fellow man? Do you even know what social networks are used for? Of course, using social networks is a personal preference. It doesn’t have any bearing on the user’s awareness or intelligence level. However there are millions of the ugliest MySpace pages in history just waiting for you to view them
Now there are some social impacts when professionals use social networks that I may cover in another post, because these have impacts as well.
The low level of probability of these attacks is no excuse to be careless with your information. I just wanted to put some things in perspective and curb potential fear mongering. When you participate in a social network you are responsible for the information you post about yourself.
I think ultimately if you read articles or hear people theorizing about attacks on social networks and they don’t have a social network presence, be skeptical. This is especially true when they are discussing social attacks. While it’s true that social networks are just web applications sometimes the vulnerabilities come from how users interact with them. This often requires participation for understanding.
Lastly, I want to make it clear once again, I am not vouching for the safety of social networks by any means. There are many dangers on social networks. I just want to make sure that we focus on the true dangers of social networks so we can raise awareness for those issues.